As pandemic restrictions roll back, we’ve been pondering the future of trade shows post-COVID. For decades, these shows have been a major source of lead generation for many—a chance to check in with current customers, woo new ones, and spark unique partnerships.
But while in-person events will always be invaluable from a networking perspective, the rise of virtual events has been exciting to watch, opening up attendance to many who otherwise might not be able to travel or afford conference fees. Mike Ruddell, Ncam’s Global Director of Business Development, has said, “Although face-to-face events are still the best way to build networks, the move to remote sessions has brought a wider group of people into the conversation and it’s great to be a part of this.”
So the question becomes: Is a hybrid solution the way forward?
Are trade shows dead?
After a couple of dire years, many press outlets ran “predictions” pieces at the start of this year, asking industry leaders what the future held for trade shows and conferences. The overwhelming response was that 2022 would see a “significant rebound”—although shows need to evolve in order to meet company needs in a post-pandemic era.
FTI Communications surveyed 500 company decision-makers in the US and UK. When the pandemic subsides, 46 percent plan to raise their trade show budgets to above pre-pandemic levels. However, 59 percent said they’d prefer smaller shows to larger ones, and 62 percent said they found virtual events more satisfying than in-person events. Going forward, virtual events are expected to hold a 55 percent share of trade show budgets.
Another survey, by Tradeshow Logic, looked at the value of virtual shows. They scored highest for education and thought leadership, with 62 percent of respondents saying virtual shows met or exceeded their expectations. On the other hand, only 33 percent were satisfied by the networking opportunities virtual events offered.
Are virtual events here to stay?
From an operational standpoint, virtual events have had a huge impact on our industry. Remote events were gradually evolving pre-pandemic, but the events of the past few years have been a huge catalyst in their growth. We’ve seen demand for camera tracking systems, ICVFX solutions, and virtual production software skyrocket. From trade shows to news broadcasts to sports to concerts, producers are looking to add augmented elements to make up for the lack of audience and atmosphere.
But while virtual events have operational benefits for those sponsoring them—including fewer employees, less travel, and less money spent on setup fees—the same points become negatives when you look at the wider economic impact. It’s estimated that 400,000 jobs in the events sector have been lost during the pandemic, a staggering blow to a once robust industry.
Are trade shows still worth it?
From a participant standpoint, the break from in-person trade shows clearly forced a reevaluation of the ROI for events. The budgets that used to go toward travel, hotels, and event fees were re-routed to areas like content marketing, online advertising, and social media—to great effect. At the start of the pandemic, fear ran rampant through most industries, and business leaders feared the worst. However, many companies are flourishing, with revenues and profit margins surpassing late-2019 levels.
But we all miss getting together in person, and many in the industry are cautiously optimistic about the return of in-person events. We enjoyed seeing colleagues at this year’s HPA Tech Retreat and at NAB, one of our first forays back into major in-person conferences since COVID-19 locked down the world in early 2020. It was great to partner up again with Brainstorm and B&H to showcase real-time 3D graphics, augmented reality, and virtual set solutions for broadcast workflows and feature films.
The world is clearly ready to move on from COVID-19, but it’s still unclear precisely what role virtual events will hold. We anticipate hybrid shows will become the new normal, where a three-day event might consist of two days in person and one day online. The show must go on—but it also must keep evolving.
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